The Manitoba Bar Association has honoured The Honourable Madam Justice Freda Steel with the MBA’s 2015 Distinguished Service Award in recognition of a lifetime of dedication and service to the legal profession and the community as a whole.

“I was flattered,” says Steel of the award, which she received at a ceremony on January 23. “It’s nice to be honoured by your profession. But I feel like I’m too young for this.”
Freda Steel comes from humble north end roots. The daughter of Holocaust survivors Morris and Sonia Steel, Freda was introduced to community service early in life.
“One of my earliest memories,” Freda says, “was going to Rovno Ladies Society teas with my mother and putting money in a bowl for Israel.”
She was encouraged to go into Law by her older brother, Sam, who attended law school before her. “I was majoring in sociology,” she recalls. “Sam encouraged me to sit for the LSAT. I wrote it and was accepted into law after just two years at university.
“I fell in love with law school and the Socratic method. To me, it was much like learning Talmud.”
Steel graduated from law at the University of Manitoba in 1975 and proceeded to earn a Masters degree at Harvard. After Harvard, she taught law at the University of Ottawa for four years, returning to Winnipeg in 1982.
“I missed my family in Winnipeg,” she says. “I also missed Winnipeg’s vibrant cultural and social activities.”
Back in Winnipeg, Steel began teaching at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Law and doing some private practice. (She also met and married fellow lawyer David Gisser shortly after returning to Winnipeg. Their children, Jason and Meira, are also practising law.)
“Through my private practice, I became involved in arbitration  -particularly labour and human rights issues,” she says. “I enjoyed that work.”
Steel was appointed to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s bench in 1995 and promoted to the Manitoba Court of Appeal in 2000. She was just the second woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeal. (Bonnie Helper was the first.)
“One of the most interesting changes in the last 40 years,” she observes, “is the much greater number of women in the profession. There are times early on when I would be the only woman in the court room. Now, women make up 50% of the enrollment in law schools.”
Although, she adds, a lot of women, particularly in private practice, do drop out before reaching the upper echelons. “The work-life balance is still an issue – for men as well as women,” she says.
On the legal side, Steel has been heavily involved in a large number of local and national legal bodies as a board member or chair. She has also played a prominent role over the years in public legal education.
In our Jewish community, she has chaired the former Ramah Hebrew School Board and the Board of Jewish Education and played an active role at different times on the board of the Campus, the Rady Centre, the Federation and, most recently, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.
From a judicial point of view, she notes, the hardest part is determining sentencing. “The media only provide people with a little snapshot of what is involved,” she says. “The decisions are difficult and community resources are limited.”
Family law cases, she adds, are the most difficult. “The emotional toll on families is enormous,” she says. “I think these cases should be handled outside the courtroom by trained mediators instead of judges. Parents should be spending the money on their kids, not on legal fees.”
As of last May 1, Freda Steel became a supernumerary judge (meaning she has been semi-retired), working 50% of the time. She has been using her free time to do good works elsewhere. She recently returned from Vancouver where she co-chaired a conference on criminal law for judges.
And she will soon be off to Newfoundland to co-chair a conference on women and judges.
“It is one of life’s blessings when you enjoy what you do,” she says. “I love my work very much.”
* * * *
Jeffrey Schnoor
Nunavut’s First Ethic’s Officer
A contemporary of Freda Steel, Jeffrey Schnoor began his legal career in 1978 in private practice – but spent the bulk of his career in public service – a 27-year span that included stints as executive director of the Manitoba Law Reform Commission, executive director of Policy Development and Analysis inside the provincial Justice Department, assistant Deputy Minister in charge of the Courts Division and culminating with his appointment as Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General – the senior non-partisan, unelected position in government.
“I loved my public service career,” he says. “Some of it was difficult and stressful, but it was always interesting and enjoyable. I was at the centre of everything and had a great opportunity to make an impact.”
Two years ago, Schnoor decided that it was time to retire – but it turned out to be a short-lived retirement. Late last year, the government of the Territory of Nunavut came calling with an enticing offer – the opportunity to serve as the 16-year-old territory’s first ethics officer – a position that once again puts Schnoor potentially in the centre of the action.
“It’s really interesting work,” says the new ethics officer of his new five-year (part time) contract. “I will be receiving and investigating allegations of wrong-doing in the Nunavut public service. I am the equivalent of an ombudsman (a position that Nunavut doesn’t have).”
Schnoor reports that Nunavut is a vast territory with a population of about 35,000 – who are largely Inuit. It is a land whose communities are connected by air and sea and there are no road links between them.
The new ethics officer, who will be based in Winnipeg, visited the territory in mid-March for a week to get the lay of the land. The Minister of Finance (under whose aegis he will be working) introduced him to the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, he met with deputy ministers, union representatives and human rights workers and he did radio and television interviews – all in the cause of raising awareness of the new position.
“I just started getting calls and e-mails at the beginning of April,” he reports. “Mostly the calls have been people seeking information or advice. Whistleblowers are supposed to bring their allegations first to their managers. I only come into the picture if a public servant feels that the issue was not dealt with to his satisfaction at the management level.
“I’m not expecting very many cases. From my experience in government, I am confident that most public servants are honest and work hard.
“I am looking forward to helping in the development and maturation of the still relatively new Territory.”